Tristan Walker, who grew up fatherless in Queens, N.Y., came of age at a boarding school in Connecticut. When it came time to deal with his increasingly intractable peach fuzz, he got his hands on some mass-market shaving products and went for it. He went to sleep mostly satisfied—only to wake up the following morning "completely broken out."
And there begins the origin story of Walker's latest venture, Walker and Company, which has aspirations of becoming the Johnson & Johnson for people of color. Its first product? Bevel, a shaving system with black men in mind.
Because as he was to learn with increasing frustration over the next few years, mass market shaving products simply weren’t made for someone with coarse, curly hair like his. "The multi-blade razor cuts hair beneath your skin," he explains. "But if you have curly hair, then it grows back into your skin." (He mocks four-and five-blade razors: "the fourth to make your bed in the morning, the fifth to do something else completely unnecessary"). Walker, the former business development director at Foursquare, experimented with electric clippers but found them "harsh on the face," and finally settled into a 15-year-long routine of using depilatory cream, not realizing, he says, he was putting "hazardous chemicals on my face." Finally, last year, during a stint as entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, Walker put his foot down.
He was going to remake health and beauty products for people of color in America.
It’s no small goal, but when he was lured to Andreessen Horowitz from Foursquare, he was encouraged to be ambitious. Would he found a new kind of bank? Tackle the childhood obesity epidemic? Fix the inefficiencies in freight trucking? He considered all three. Finally, though, he realized that if he was going to spend the next decade or more of his life doing something ambitious, it also had to be authentic, rooted in who he was. And who he was, at that moment, was a black man in America pissed that he couldn’t get a decent shave.
He began to research. He interviewed an "old retired executive from a large shaving company" who counseled him to look at old photographs from the days before King Gillette began patenting novel forms of razors. Walker turned to Flickr and clicked through photos of men 100, 150 years ago. "None had any razor bumps on their faces," he recalls of black and white men alike—and this, in the supposedly primitive era of the single-blade razor! Finally, Walker set about designing what he calls "the first and only end-to-end shaving system designed for men and women with coarse or curly hair." It’s a six-product system called Bevel (razor, blade, brush, and several liquid products), and the product has just become available on Bevel’s website. A starter kit is $60, or there’s a $30-per-month subscription option.
Walker knows his product will be welcomed with open arms by some—he describes the indignity of walking to the "ethnic aisle, which is really a shelf" at the average drugstore—while others may be more hesitant. Bevel sells direct-to-consumer. Might it in any way threaten the sense of community that many black Americans feel around their barbershops? "It’s not an institution we want to get rid of," insists Walker. "The way we think about Bevel is, ‘Hey, go to the barbershop every Saturday. Then let us take care of you from Sunday to Friday.'"
Noting that almost three quarters of African American babies are born to unwed mothers, Walker—who also founded CODE2040, a mentorship program for black and Latino STEM students—welcomes the opportunity a black-oriented shaving product provides for a conversation about fatherlessness in America. A related website, BevelCode, already collects stories about the ways young men of color have forged grooming habits unique to their situations. One story recounts the peculiar challenge a black fraternity at Stanford faced: "How does it feel not to have a barbershop within 15 miles of campus? These guys got super creative," he says, "and figured out a way to invite barbers to the campus to cut the kind of hair they had."
Bevel is not intended solely for African Americans. Razor burn and bumps resulting from shaving course or curly hair affects about 80% of the black community, and 30% of the rest of men, says Walker, who sure won't turn away customers on account of their skin color. "It has to start with a problem," Walker says of his product-designing philosophy—and he does hope to someday reach a cadence of one to two new brands per year. "We’ll never make a shampoo just to make a shampoo." Future products will tackle problems that may present more commonly among Latinos or Asian Americans, he says.
Though driven by a personal frustration, and possessed with a sense of mission, Walker is the first to admit that designing products for people of color simply makes good business sense. Just look at the census, he says: for the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of Americans are non-white. And all those babies are going to want to pluck, rinse, groom, and shave in the not-too-distant future. "I am dedicating my life to this demographic shift that’s happening," says Walker. "Why are folks missing the boat?"